Thursday, August 31, 2006

Grieving: Past, Present, and Future

It's a quiet evening at home. We've both taken off from work tomorrow in order to spend our old dog's last day on earth with him, sniffing flowers, eating grass, wandering in the neighborhood, eating ice cream. I've mentioned Sparkey and his blog several times recently, and the anticipatory grieving has now begun as we prepare for the vet's visit to our home on Saturday morning. As much as it's painful to be actively planning our dog's death, it seems the most humane thing to do, taking into consideration his increasing inability to walk, worsening renal failure, and now a wet cough that signals to me the development of early congestive heart failure. The vet feels he is also suffering some cognitive deficits, though we just can't see that that is truly the case. Nonetheless, it is now painfully clear that he's ready to go, and it would only be selfish to keep him with us now.

In 2001, our dear friend was killed by the police in the most tragic and unfortunate of ways, and we have been reverberating from his death for almost five years. Sparkey's imminent demise is retraumatizing for me to a certain extent, and many of those feelings of loss are now surfacing again. Our friend Woody was very close with Sparkey, and in years past they went on many adventures together, running through the woods, returning to our house bloody, limping and ecstatic. Losing Sparkey is like losing another piece of Woody, and I know that this grieving process will be long and multifaceted.

Death surrounds us. Working in healthcare, I have come to know and subsequently say goodbye to more people than I could ever count. Some have died peacefully, some have suffered interminably, others have succumbed quickly to illness and passed before their bodies had time to begin to deteriorate. My great-aunt lived to be 112 or so, her body eventually losing its ability to sustain her keen personality. My maternal grandmother died in a nursing home, confused and lonely following an illness, an infection, and an unexpected and sudden amputation. Most recently, one of my patients of whom I wrote a fair amount died at home 21 days after nutrition and fluids were withdrawn. He hung on with the tenacity of one clinging to life, even when that life lacked all discernible quality.

I have never had the honor of being present for a death, but have been at the bedside of the dying, performed healing touch on the dying, and pronounced patients dead in my former role as a visiting nurse. It is a solemn moment when one signs one's first death certificate, affixing one's name and professional license number to a legal document certifying the passing of a soul from this world to the next. Such a pragmatic moment of legalese in the midst of mystery and human drama.

In the past week since we realized that Sparley's time had come, I have watched myself pass through many of the stages of grieving multiple times in a single day. Bargaining has come easily, although denial must be the stage I have most often favored. Depression has certainly visited, and anger has manifested in annoyance and impatience with the people around me. Acceptance, of course, is most slow to dawn, especially on days like today when my fits of weeping have been exquisitely intense. So afraid was I of bawling as soon as she answered the phone, I have refrained from calling my mother and instead asked my brother to call her and ask her to contact me instead. Thank Goddess for email.

This trauma of loss, death and grief is a tiring aspect of human existence. Living in the physical realm, we must accept the breakdown of the body, the denouement of the human or animal existence, the losses incurred in such a process, and the feelings of bereavement that accompany such intense emotional experiences. Sometimes I have found myself longing for that release myself---not a death wish, simply an acknowledgement of the heaviness and burdensomeness of corporeal existence.

For those who believe that there is nothing beyond this third-dimensional realm, perhaps the utter cessation of beingness brought about by death of the body is a frightening thought at best. For me, I have no uncertainty that there is something beyond that which we can see, so I have no personal fear that my existence will end when my body dies, thus I have no fear that, for instance, Sparkey's physical absence will signal the end of his essence.

This being human---a corporeal presence replete with a soul, a spirit, a mind and a heart---is such a multidimensional existence of which I believe we experience precious little. Sparkey will leave us on Saturday, his body will be placed in a hole in the earth, and he will live in our hearts in a way that is both precious, sad, and ultimately joyful. I will picture him in a heaven that only a dog could fully love, and I hope to one day join him on that bridge where humans and their deceased pets are said to meet. My grieving process will be both public and private, and this is one venue where I will air some of those feelings with you, my readers and friends.

May all beings be free of suffering, and may all beings be at peace. I leave you in sadness tinged with sweetness, a sweetness worth every moment of tears. My eyes are now heavy, and we will all escape to the dream world for a respite from this soulful heaviness that we feel.

Good night, and sweet dreams.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Correspondence is Born

My niece, a newly minted college student somewhere in New England, referred a friend to me for advice on exploring the joys and vicissitudes of nursing as a career. This thoughtful young woman who is entering her senior year in high school is filled with questions which I most readily and joyfully answer. This is affording me a golden opportunity to examine my motives for being a nurse, my reasons for remaining a nurse, and why and how I would ever consider encouraging anyone else to enter this profession.

Yes, nurses may still sometimes "eat their young", and hospitals may still use mandatory overtime to heartlessly over-utilize their nurses, while some of us struggle with caseloads which burst our brains' ability to provide what we feel is the most thoughtful, thorough care possible.

Still, I see a noble and genuine love of people driving many individuals to enter the nursing milieu, and a career which, historically, is portrayed as one which is grounded in compassion and caring. Nurses have made great strides (alongside some misguided backwards motion at times), and I still feel enormous pride vis-a-vis my chosen vocation/profession.

This correspondence, which I hope to integrate and share here on Digital Doorway, may open for me some more doorways to explore, and I'll be sure to share them here so that you can experience them with me. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Life and Death at Home

Life and death issues are not just confined to work. We are struggling mightily with the imminent demise of our beloved dog Sparkey, today's chapter of the story chronicled here on my other blog, Latter Day Sparks. Your visit would be most welcome.......

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Breath of Fresh Air


If this elephant of mind is bound on all sides by the cord of mindfulness,
All fear disappears and complete happiness comes.

All enemies: all the tigers, lions, elephants, bears, serpents (of our emotions);

And all the keepers of hell; the demons and the horrors,

All of these are bound by the mastery of your mind,

And by the taming of that one mind, all are subdued,

Because from the mind are derived all fears and immeasurable sorrows.

SHANTIDEVA

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Personal Pain Reduction

For those of you following the saga of my back pain and nerve root cyst, I am now nine days out from having had my first spinal injection of corticosteroids. I'm happy to report that I am subjectively experiencing an approximately 30% reduction in pain over the last two days, and have hopes that the symptoms will lessen even more over the coming week. The injections sometimes take up to 14 days to take effect---for reasons unbeknownst to me---and I can attest that on day seven my symptoms began to diminish. Stay tuned, and thanks for the many well wishes.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Turning Corners, Connecting Dots

Recovery, healing, and a new life reality are always around the corner. In healthcare, watching someone make that shift is incredibly gratifying.

Two of my current patients are both making great strides in their recovery, accepting help and attempting to make positive choices. One's drug of choice is alcohol. The other has a predilection for cocaine and heroin. Each one has other health problems which only magnify the urgency of making better choices: cirrhosis, hypertension, diabetes, neuropathy, depression, anxiety. No matter the constellation of comorbidities, the potential outcome---disability and death---is certain.

I try to offer a clean slate with each visit. My role, while multifaceted, is also quite simple. I provide guidance, compassion, tough love when needed, and a steady hand through the rough patches. I tell them: when the cravings come, call me. When the pain is too much, call me. When you feel like you're so afraid you want to die, call me. When you need a pep talk, call me. And these two people really do call---as do some others---and now it's paying dividends.

One of the secrets to guiding our patients towards health is getting them to pay attention. If they don't focus on the fact that their liver is affected directly by every drink, every drug, every decision, they just don't connect the dots. If they forget how important it is to tightly control their blood sugars, they lose sight of the prize. If they can't connect their current symptoms with their lifestyle choices, they're lost. Health is a complex entity, and seeing the lightbulb go off in their head is a gratifying moment in itself. Watching them use that lightbulb to illuminate their darkest corners of pain and regret is pure magic.

When it all comes down to it, it is compassion which drives the vehicle. Even when they come in, sit down in the exam room, and say "I fucked up. I used again this weekend. My life is over," I try to keep my expression neutral, my voice calm. "OK. You made a poor choice. But today you're here. Let's talk about today and tomorrow. What next? What's the next step?" I maintain my equilibrium, look them in the eye, hand reasurringly on their arm, my gaze steady but soft, open and inviting of confidence.

One man has been clean of alcohol since January of 2005 and has turned his life around. He is still struggling with the fact that he can't hang out with his old friends anymore and feels isolated. "I don't have much fun since I quit drinking. Everyone else seems to be having such a good time. It's lonely." But he keeps on the straight and narrow, and though his liver is riddled with cirrhosis, it seems we caught it just in time. While he may not be agood candidate for a transplant, he's a good candidate for a paradigm shift. He's living and eating well and trying his best. He turned a corner and never looked back. That liver will eventually kill him, but we don't focus there, turning our gaze forever on the present.

Another patient relapses again and again but now may be on the right road. I finally got him into an outpatient addictions treatment program and he's doing the work, plus going to meetings every day. Frightened of death and disability, knowing that his liver is damaged (but not yet beyond repair like the gentleman in the previous paragraph), he wants to do it all. He sees the cardiologist, shows up for appointments, sees our psychologist, and continues to make the right choices. We treat him like the respectable human being he is, with dignity and respect. He responds by coming back again and again, ready for more. I cant promise him he'll live forever, but I can promise him improved health and quality of life if he pays attention. And his attention is currently riveted----eyes on the prize.

For each patient who I cannot reach, who is lost to their own devices, there are several who respond to the call and step up to the proverbial plate. Their stellar performance, their willingess to engage again and again, that can keep me going. The others? I keep sending out the bait and trying to reel them in. Some respond from time to time, some crash and burn, many die. The hand is always there if they want it----if they can even see it. One such gentleman is now institutionalized forever, having ruptured his esophagus from intractable vomiting. He admits that he should have listened, that he should have known this day would come. Regretful and sad, his body filled with tubes, unable to ever eat or drink again, he is a living example of what happens when one fails to pay attention and falls into the abyss again. It's dark in there, and he was saved only by a miracle. He's a living example, a sad reminder to many. I feel such compassion for him, such sadness.

Back to the present, there are many more willing to take the leap of faith, and we're ready for them every day. What a treat to watch as a person turns that corner, beaming a smile of pride, and seems to finally "get it" in a way that is irreversibly joyful. The dark moments still come, the corners in need of illumination still harboring silent watchful demons, but there's still room for recovery and growth, the light filling the room with hope. That light is what we try to point out, and many thankfully refuse to shade their eyes and step over that threshold. It is a wonder to behold.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Change of Shift, Vol. I, No. V

Please surf on over to Change of Shift, Volume 5. Change of Shift is a new blog carnival by and about nurses and nurse bloggers. Please show your support by reading this newest edition. No charge!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Question and an Answer

QUESTION: Tired nurse seeking fuel for his train running low on soul coal. Where does one turn? Exercise? Vacation? Gin? Meditation? Sleep? Narcotics? Dear Abbie? Dr. Ruth? Judge Judy? Dr. Phil?

ANSWER: Don't just do something. Sit there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mid-Week Fatigue

Mid-week fatigue rolls in on this nurse who just finished a 12-hour day plus time at the gym early this morning. I have that boy-my-feet-and-brain-are-tired feeling. Bone tired. This chronic pain thing is draining. Part of my fatigue is the extra weight of pain and discomfort throughout the day, with lost sleep for extra spice.

Tired or not, the patients keep coming, each with their individual needs. So many interactions fill a day. Hours go by, with myriad details flying around my head like so many swarming flies.

Each interaction, each situation, calls for a certain level of awareness and presence. I try to bring to each patient a sense that I am fully there, fully listening, hearing their complaints and responding to them in a way which helps them to feel heard. Beyond hearing, I look for teaching moments, as well as ways in which my actions will benefit that individual in some way, assuage a pain, relieve a worry, mitigate an annoyance. There is so much to do, so many choices to make.

Sometimes the days are like being in an asteroid belt, dodging and sailing around so many obstacles, potential clashes and frictions always on the verge of manifesting themselves. At other times, it feels like a battlefield, and as the telephone calls and faxes and unannounced patients arrive, the support staff yell "incoming!" like infantry in a foxhole. Then again it can sometimes just feel like an office with alot of hubbub, while I coast atop the crest of the wave, few ruffles of my feathers even noticed as I breeze along. Still other days, it is a nauseating roller-coaster, the carnie on an extended break and the ride set on an endless loop. Then we reach for the barf-bag and pass the Dramamine.

No Dramamine today. Rather, a need for deep sleep uninterrupted by pain, muscles crying out, disturbing my needed rest. Pain can raise one's compassion---for one's self and for others. It can be a very human reminder of the mortal corporeal reality in which we are ensconced, the dangerous pull of gravity which wears down our resistance, pulling us to earth like the proverbial ball and chain.

This physical existence, this dragging around a body---it's enough to make one realize just how much work it takes to propel yourself along through life. As healthcare professionals, we try to remedy that weight as it is experienced by our patients, but we cannot carry their burdens for them. No. We use compassion, skillful listening, and our own life's truth to guide us in our guiding of others along these difficult earthly paths. I feel the weight of gravity today. May tomorrow its pull be less noticeable, the strain of physicality assuaged for all who need that sweet relief.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

One A.M.

It's 1 A.M.. Trying to sleep, to no avail. I think I dozed off for a while but the pain in my back and upper legs just won't let me rest. While I have pain throughout the day, there are times when it is more forcefully registered, and unfortunately that time tends to be late at night when I am trying to rejuvenate. To sleep, perchance to dream.....

The pain in my lower back is constantly present. It is not searing, nor is it knifing. It is more of a dull ache which increases in intensity with certain positions or movements. I am able to bicycle without any noticeable increase in pain. The position needed to drive a car also does not seem to exacerbate it. In fact, driving tends to be one of my more low-pain times, except if I'm stuck driving Mary's standard transmission Honda. Fortunately, it doesn't inhibit my sexual function or enjoyment, although twinges of discomfort can happen at any time.

My chiropractor notes that the deep muscles along my lower right spine are over-developed and in a constant state of hypertonicity. Before he can adjust my spinal column, he must perform deep muscular massage to manage any movement at all within the facets of the spinal joints. His colleague, who specializes in lower extremities, adjusts my feet and knees and ankles and has prescribed orthotic inserts for my shoes, which do indeed decrease my leg pain, especially in the knees. However, there is a deep ache in the thighs---both anterior and posterior---which nothing seems to relieve. This tightness and aching manifests at its worst at night, just when sleep would be most welcome. It is not superficial. Rather, the ache seems to wrap itself around my femur, some tender points along the exterior tissue almost too excruciating to touch.

Many of my patients suffer from chronic pain, taking oxycodone, Percocet, long-acting morphines like Oxycontin and Oramorph SR, or methadone---which was traditionally used for pain management, not addiction. I am loathe to take anything other than non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Lately, however, I am resorting to a few Vicodin tablets---only at bedtime, and grudgingly accepted from my primary doctor---in the hopes of enough muscular relaxation to promote sleep. It's not fun, and I do not envy my patients their reliance on pain-killers, the side effects of such, as well as the long haul of physiological---and in some cases, psychological---dependence. Although a large part of my job is responding to my patients' needs for narcotic refills---not a favored task by any definition---I more fully appreciate my patients' desire to not run out of the pills which afford them some modicum of relief and succor.

Some thoughts run through my mind as I write: Do I ask for a trial prescription of muscle relaxants to help me make it through the night? Will they give me just too much of a hangover to be worth the relief? Do I continue to try very low-dose narcotic analgesics like Vicodin to take the edge off in a very miniscule way? Do I hire an acupuncturist to come to my house every night at bedtime and strategically place needles which will promote sleep, relax muscles and reduce pain? Do I continue to wander the house late at night, sleeping in various beds in order to toss and turn without waking Mary and also disturbing her well-deserved rest? Will yesterday's injection have any positive effect?

Writing about my own experience of pain and suffering---and yes, I would certainly categorize this as suffering---brings me to a new place in my blogging practice. Most of my writing has centered around my interactions with patients in the course of my work, their treatments, their failings, their victories, my experience of them and myself in the face of illness, medicine, and nursing. Writing of my own personal struggles is more intimate, more invasive, more challenging, and brings up emotions of vulnerability, fear of judgement, and deeper fears of becoming like them: complaining about pain, looking for answers, talking incessantly about my health, focusing on what's wrong, not what's right. I don't want to be a patient. That may be my bottom line. I like to be the giver, not the receiver, the one providing an opportunity for healing, not in need of such.

In my post of yesterday, I used a quote from a Buddhist website which I visit often, from where I receive a daily email meditation. The post concerns the future and the futility of worrying about it. If one were to be preoccupied with the future, the quote maintains, why not focus on the uncertainty of the hour of one's death? Thus, is fear of being a patient, of chronic illness, actually a fear of death? Is it mortality with which I am faced?

Fear of death has never been a piece of the puzzle for me. I have no fear of death or dying. While I would prefer a painless death, I am generally relatively stoic in the face of pain, and work with my mind when it rears its ugly head. Now, faced with pain that is more recalcitrant, my mind is struggling with how to wrap itself around this one, how to assuage this bump in the road towards actualization and enlightenment. I do not welcome death, but I also do not deny its inevitability. If some suffering along the way is my lot, then let's glean what we can from it before the final reckoning, whether there are four more decades, or five or six, or even only months. Death is not an ending to me, but a true beginning. The tired shell is laid to rest, but the essence enters a new phase, a new realm, freed of the body's vicissitudes and weaknesses. True freedom, but a freedom for which I do not long.

In my fourth decade of life, (fifth if you count birth to age 9), my body has betrayed me on some levels and is showing signs of wear: gastroesophageal reflux disease with a sliding hiatal hernia; chronic back pain with a newly discovered spinal cyst; prostatic hypertrophy; chronic depression; hyperlipidemia; arthritis with some degenerative joints; bulging discs with a few possible small herniations. Yes, it’s “just a body”, but it’s all I have right now, and would sincerely like another forty or so years of residence, thank you.

How will this capsule, this vessel of my soul, maintain itself in the face of these challenges? How will my mind and heart respond? How will I manage these challenges and maintain my equilibrium, my ability to give back to the world, to experience life to the fullest, to "repay the debt of my existence"?

These are some of the thoughts which drift across my fatigued mind at one a.m.. The answers? They will manifest themselves as needed. The questions? They will only multiply, providing an ongoing conversation for years to come.

Now to sleep, perchance to dream.........

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Future

Planning for the future is like going fishing in a dry gulch;
Nothing ever works out as you wanted, so give up all your schemes and ambitions.
If you have got to think about something—
Make it the uncertainty of the hour of your death.

---GYALSÉ RINPOCHE

from the Rigpa website, oft quoted here



Friday, August 18, 2006

Yes, We Have No Paralysis

It took all of fifteen minutes. I didn't even need to change into a hospital "johnny". The nurse led me into the procedure room. I had to empty my pockets and unbutton my pants and untuck my shirt, laying myself in prone position with a pillow under my pelvis. After moving the metal buttons of my shirt away, an x-ray was taken and the doctor strode in. Young, handsome, confident, in black rayon slacks with a knife's edge crease down the front. (He sure doesn't do his own ironing, thought I.) He and the nurse both wore long blue lead aprons with what looked like a cumberbun around the waist. Come to think of it, they were cumberbuns, more or less. Well I'll be. If they had worn bow-ties I would have ordered a gin and tonic. Make that two.

We spent a few minutes discussing the procedure and my bothersome questions. Mary had come in with me and also chimed in, playing the part of the worried and anxious wife. She does it so well. "He's so active, but has so much pain. We really hope this provides some relief." The doctor reassured me that I do not have a Tarlov Cyst filled with cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). Rather, I most likely have a synovial cyst which is much easier to treat and can sometimes spontaneously resolve. He also reassured me that paralysis from the procedure was next to impossible. Phew.

After cleansing the area (I presume with Betadine), he inserted the needle under guided fluoroscopy, injecting first lidocaine for local numbing followed by the steroids. The only sensation was that of pressure on the injection site (sort of like an elephant stepping on my lumbo-sacral spine) and then a heaviness in my right leg which has lasted for several hours. Unfortunately, any positive effects may take as long as two weeks to be noticeable, or I may (doubly unfortunately) have no positive effects at all. For now, at Mary's suggestion,
I will visualize those steroids bathing the affected area, hindering pain sensations while decreasing inflammation in the surrounding tissue. Ahhh. Like a gin and tonic for the spinal cord. Hey doc, any limes on hand?

On the way home, we stopped for ice cream at our favorite summer place located along our usual way home. Some friends who were recently married divulged at their wedding that they have a "Donut Rule": anyone who has to go to the hospital, ER, or other urgent medical appointment always gets a donut. For us, it's now officially "The Ice Cream Rule". Today was Maple Nut soft-serve in a cone. I'd take another spinal injection tomorrow for a repeat of that treat, but alas, no such luck.

Now, home on a Friday night, my right leg somewhat heavy, I loped around the block with the dogs while Mary went to the gym. Luckily, Sparkey is really tired and we stopped for two ten-minute breaks, sitting at the side of the road, me reading the paper and they the wind. At each rest-stop, we were accosted by well-wishers with treats: first the mail-carrier, then a neighbor. Joy.

Presently, I am ensconced in the hammock, that gin and tonic finally at my side, coursing through my veins in a mirrored action to the steroids in my spine. Pure poetry, that.

Now for some r & r.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Paralysis or Death?

Tomorrow afternoon I will don the ubiquitously humiliating gown of the patient and undergo a spinal injection to my L5-S1 joint where I have a growing nerve root cyst.

Apropos of this pending appointment, I told a doctor with whom I work about the injection and wondered aloud about the risks of paralysis from said procedure, especially since it is so low on the spinal column. His unequivocal response:"Don't get me wrong, I love my wife and kids, but I'd take death over paralysis any day. Paralysis is a miserable way to live." Hmmm.

I next spoke with another doc---of whom I am also quite fond---about my back pain and the injection scheduled for tomorrow. I also told him what the other doctor had said (they've known each other for years.)

"I'd take paralysis over death hands down. I'd much rather be paralyzed and alive, no matter the circumstance." With that, he handed me morphine scripts that I had requested for a patient.

"Thanks, _______. Can I have one of these scripts for myself?"

So, paralysis and death as two viable options. I think I'll choose a third option: maximum function, decreased pain, and a positive outcome. How's that?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Barely Living

Her home feels like a tomb. Her paranoia causes her to barricade the front door with the couch and hide in her room upstairs. She's lost her Personal Care Attendant services, her family have abandoned her, and she spins relentless webs of paranoia as she cowers indoors on even the nicest summer days.

The level of trauma which she has experienced in her life is something which I cannot begin to fathom, and the chaos of her mind is also beyond my ken. I can tell that it's muddy in there, but the muddiness is not within my ability to clarify. What I am able to provide is concrete: an appointment with our psychologist for an assessment, prefilled psychotropic meds in an easy-to-use daily med box, the number for psychiatric emergency services, holding her hand as she cries.

I offer a hug when I get up to leave her barren apartment which once teemed with life---children, teens, neighbors, grandchildren, visitors. The house feels so lonely, there are barely echoes of its former life. I know her husband died in this house and his ghost must haunt her still, not to mention the horror of finding him in their bed, blue and lifeless.

She complains of voices constantly telling her "horrible, horrible things." She peers through the curtains into the bright sunlit street and demonstrates for me how her paranoia manifests in fear-based obsessive-compulsive behavior.

What can I offer? Empathy? Sympathy? Emergency phone numbers? An appointment? Medications? I feel like what's needed here is an all-out exorcism, and I leave the darkened home, sobered and sad.

"Barely living" is what I think as I walk towards the clinic. Can we really prescribe a return to life?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Birthday Meditation

This planet of ours has made more than forty revolutions around the sun since the day I was born. As carbon-based life goes, I've been a pretty lucky duck. Free of life-threatening disease (as far as I know), with working limbs, satisfactory organs, some deficits here and there (especially in the lumbar region), and this strange serotonin deficiency---life is still relatively cushy for this collection of atoms manifested as myself.

Considering all of the things that can go wrong as one gallops through life, my list of grievances and injuries is relatively short compared to many on this troubled Earth. Some physical and psychological challenges have posed dragons with which I have had to wrestle. Some of my favorite people have died, one murdered by authorities wielding weapons they have no right to use on private citizens. One of my mentors died with more than 110 years under her belt, and her place in my personal firmament is forever held on high. Others have been taken by AIDS, cancer, and accidents. And others will certainly follow. My parents are in their seventies, so this child has good reason to suspect that he will live to see their deneoument, as well. And so it is.

I am blessed with a child---nay, now an adult---whose mere presence causes a stirring of joy in my heart equal to none. I have a life partner and love for whom I would do or give anything, and with whom life is a mysterious and wonderful journey filled with surprise and delight. I have siblings, parents, nieces and nephews and godchildren who populate my life with their loving presence. I have work which is fulfilling, colleagues who are respectful and supportive, and a lovely warm home, and dear friends far and wide.

I also recognize that I do not live amidst war and violence, have no need to lock my front door, walk freely at any time of day or night, am never short of food or drink, and have resources at my disposal which would be unimaginable to many less priviledged than I. It's also clear that as a white male in a society (however wrongly) dominated by other white men, there are powers and freedoms which I daily take for granted, barely registering from moment to moment that those freedoms have been denied to so many for centuries, and still are to this day, even in our own country.

Speaking of my country, I do not entertain giddy feelings of patriotism which dictate that I proclaim that I live on the greatest country on the face of the earth, and I am fully aware that my government does many heinous and reprehensible things "in my name" with my hard-earned taxes. While I will readily criticize this government, this culture, this society, and especially the current administration whose names will hopefully go down in history as the most ill-begotten "sons of freedom" to ever walk this earth, I also readily acknowledge that, for all its foibles and weaknesses and its culture of excess, I was still lucky to be born here and daily exercise the priviledges pursuant to that origin, deserved or not. While my freedom seems assured, "Land of the Free" is---at least to me---a vast overstatement, taking into consideration the popular belief that "no one is free when others are oppressed". And oppressed they are.

So, on this day marking the anniversary of my arrival on this earth, I give thanks for all I have, for those in my orbit, near and far, and for the freedoms and priviledges which make my life what it is. And for those who have less than I, who struggle far more than I, who need far more than I, they are in my thoughts and prayers, and (to paraphrase Robert Fripp) may my living repay the debt of my existence.

Monday, August 14, 2006

On Blogging and Connectivity

I realize that I spend a great deal of my time either thinking about blogging, talking about blogging, or actually writing on my blogs. I am a great proponent of the medium, have now appeared in at least one article about nurse bloggers, and participate in two ongoing and regular blog carnivals which gather together the "best" of the bloggers in the medical, nursing, and allied health fields.

In the mainstream media, "blogger" or "bloggers" are generally lumped into one category---the political blogger---that pesky nuisance (or brilliant iconoclast, depending upon your opinion on the matter, of course) who breaks a story faster than ABC and makes Dan Rather look like a dinosaur (an easy task, I know, but still laudable, in essence).

Aside from the political pundits who inhabit the blogsophere, there are countless categories of bloggers filling the Web with what some might call drivel, but which I consider a portal into the lives, loves, longings and interests of millions of souls staring at a screen, fingers typing with intention. While some blogs which detail the ins and outs of rechargeable batteries may not be my cup of tea, the fact that an individual feels strongly enough about those batteries to publish his or her thoughts about them and share them with the world is, by nature (at least in my mind) a worthwhile task. Whereas some might postulate that the "battery blogger" needs to get a life, perhaps his life includes time devoted to filling one small mini-hectare of cyberspace with his opinion on the merits of various batteries. Is this in itself bad or good, productive or not? The person shopping for the ultimate rechargeable battery would certainly be grateful for the information on offer.

Strolling through any blog search engine will reveal that there are many, many people with something to say. The worth of those words and pictures are completely subjective, but the sense of connection and community which these communications can foster is certainly worthy of exploration. I'm interested to see what scholarly and popular tomes are written (on real paper) in the near future, examining the effect of blogs on culture, social connectivity, and the dissemination of information and opinion on a global basis, be it about batteries or Babar.

To some, sitting in front of a computer to "connect"with others might seem somewhat of a conundrum. Why not meet like-minded others in a cafe? A bar? A local gym? A meeting or club? Yes, all of the these are distinct possibilities, yet meeting people these days and forming friendships can be a slow and painstaking process, especially as life has taken on a propulsive velocity that precludes the practice of sitting in the town square and watching the people go by as we chat with neighbors and friends, making new friends and acquaintances in the process. The fact of the matter is that meeting for lunch, then going out for drinks, then getting one's families together to meet one another, is often a prohibitive experience for many new friends. If one is a parent, the taxiing and ferrying of children to and fro---and the complicated social lives of children---make it even more difficult for working adults to simply spend time over coffee, chatting and deepening friendships the old-fashioned way. For better or for worse (probably for worse), our culture has changed, and this type of easy social discourse is much more difficult to achieve, perhaps even in smaller towns previously untouched by the speed of life in the 21st century.

With blogs can come community, connectivity, and a sense of belonging. Nurse bloggers "meet" on-line and form strong professional and personal bonds. Posting comments on one another's blogs leads to personal email transactions, then telephone conversations, even face-to-face meetings. After a year of blog and email communications, my wife and I actually visited a blog-friend of mine in her hometown and we have begun a friendship built upon the foundation of the multitudinous and deep sharing we have done in the digital realms. The friendship moved from the virtual to the physical plane, and we are richer for it.

Beyond blogs, on-line social networking communities have created even more cohesive groups where individuals find like-minded people and congregate to discuss topics or issues of interest. often leading to "real-time" meetings, even international conferences and the like. Tribe, MySpace, Zaadz, Care2---these sites all carry the promise of connectivity, community, a sense of belonging, and a way to find those who share your interests without standing at a bar, ordering a beer, and asking the person next to you if they happen to like Jean Paul Sartre and would be interested in discussing Nausea with you for an hour or so. Zaadz is where I put my attention, a place dedicated to bringing together people who want to change the world. I also concentrate on the relationships fostered between myself and other bloggers, and the sense of true connection is something only the initiated can truly understand and appreciate.

I am by no means covering all of the aspects of blogging and social connectivity which could be put forth in such a missive. These are simply the late-night ramblings of a dedicated blogger and admitted email addict who sees that much good can come of such predilections, as long as one maintains normal real-world social discourse, takes time to read real paper books, drink coffee unhurriedly with friends at outdoor cafes in dappled sunlight, and delight in the scampering of a puppy pursuing a stick thrown by its owner in the neighborhood park. There is room for connectivity of all kinds in this world, and we all know that too much of any good thing---blogging included---can only myopia make.

So now I will peel my eyes from the screen, pick up my book, pour some tea, and connect with myself through the magic of literature and the fire it lights in my imagination. Meanwhile, millions of bloggers fill the ethers as they share their lives and loves and inspirations, digital tendrils snaking around the world, connections made, severed, reconnected and strengthened. What a tangled web we weave......

Sunday, August 13, 2006

In Praise of Napping and Self-Care

Ah, a four-day weekend. Nothing like it, except perhaps a five-day weekend.

Self-care has become of paramount importance as the speed of post-modern life has steadily increased. Technology's promise of a simpler life---captured to great effect in the 1950's Disneyesque dream of robots doing the mundane tasks as we enjoy increased leisure time---is not necessarily what we have wrought. Cell phones, Blackberries, Smartphones, the Internet, iPods, Tivo---the trappings are all there, but there is no sign of a slowed pace of life that I can detect.

I constantly try to examine my use of time, my choices, the places where I spend my energy. Taking into account the fast pace of my 9-5 existence and the obsessive meticulousness needed to efficiently and thoroughly accomplish my work-related tasks, I find it necessary to keep in check my predilection for being a "human doing" rather than a "human being" when at home. Whether it be blogging, emailing, cleaning, organizing the house, ironing, laundry, paying bills, even socializing---there is generally far too much to do and little time in which to do it. Add to this seemingly endless list my current volunteerism and a sincere desire to increase my activism in the world, and that's alot to fit onto an already overcrowded plate.

How to remedy the slide into overwork at home and office? For one, exercise is key, although that drive to exercise can also become just one other thing that one "must" do in one's limited time. Blogging can be an exercise in self-care, unless one blogs in order to not disappoint readers who are allegedly waiting impatiently for your next brilliant missive. One activity is surely a wholesome way to revitalize the mind and improve one's life, and that would be napping. Napping's positive effects on the autonomic nervous system (as well as personal productivity) has been scientifically measured, and I am all for institutionalization of such practice immediately (reimbursed by all HMO's, of course!)

Just this weekend alone, I have managed a ninety minute nap on Saturday while taking a break from a local wedding celebration that stretched from 1pm until midnight. (Our friends were married on the lake where they live (literally), arriving by raft from the opposite shore to an anchored off-shore dock, then jumping into the water when pronounced as married, the initial receiving line accomplished while all parties treaded water.)

Today, following brunch out and a sunny bike-ride, I succumbed to Orpheus' grip once again as I lay on a blanket next to my love, book temporarily abandoned, hawks circling overhead as we sunned in the grass. Bliss.

Tomorrow, a nap will certainly be in order, not to mention Tuesday---my birthday---when all bets are off and napping could take on Olympic stature, the dogs certainly having the edge vis-a-vis endurance and depth of slumber.

Amidst the hubbub of post-modern life (or are we beyond post-modern now? I forget...), it is so easy to lose sight of mental and physical health. Living right also means resting right, eating right, sleeping well, and knowing when enough is enough, even of a good thing (except for napping and chocolate, that is).

But seriously, this nurse recognizes that giving away one's energy seven days a week will eventually wear the compassion engine down, and an individual's effectiveness and ability to cope will only suffer if self-neglect is the overarching modus operandi. We who work in the "giving trades" must also give to ourselves, as much as that sometimes feels indulgent. No one wants a burnt-out nurse to care for them, no matter how competent that nurse might be, for that burnt-out nurse will eventually blow a gasket and make a life-threatening error or simply say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.

These four days are about my own recovery and revitalization, a moment of needed reflection and nervous system taming. I draw a breath and realize that the only thing to do next is draw another. Then another. And then I'll make the dogs' dinner with love, compassion, and a resftul equanimity that feeds my soul.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Perpetual Change

"To work with changes now, in life: That is the real way to prepare for death. Life may be full of pain, suffering, and difficulty, but all of these are opportunities handed to us to help us move toward an emotional acceptance of death. It is only when we believe things to be permanent that we shut off the possibility of learning from change."

---Sogyal Rinpoche

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Carnival, Carnival!

Please visit the current edition of Change of Shift, a nursing blog carnival, currently featured at It's A Nursing Thing. Check out some excellent blogging by a bevy of talented nurses with a great deal to share, hosted by a very creative and tech-savvy nursing student, "Intelinurse2b".

While you're at it, stop by the most recent edition of Grand Rounds, hosted this time by Mexico Medical Student, replete with musical interludes.

Those nursing and medical bloggers sure keep the creative juices flowing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Full Moon Fun

Just a short missive to relate that Tuesday really threw me for a loop today. With the volume of calls, emails, interruptions, patients in need, home visits, med boxes to fill, refills to call in, doctors to consult, letters to write, voicemails and details, details, details, it felt like doing battle with an unwieldy opponent who was always one step ahead. At one point during the day, I thought to myself, "Is it a full moon today?"

Lo and behold, on the way home from a lovely dinner at the home of dear friends, a full moon was smiling down upon the ribbon of road before us!

It'll be midnight soon, but I have not yet begun to sprout unsightly facial hair and claws, despite the gravity of that glowing lunar orb. Perhaps I'll stop pushing my luck and escape to Dreamland now before it's too late.

Good night, and may the glow of the moon illuminate your world..............

Monday, August 07, 2006

Moonlightin' Nurse

Now that my teaching days at the community college are done, I'm stepping up my moonlighting at two other per diem gigs. This nurse and his blushing bride don't seem able to earn quite enough from 9 to 5, so some evening shifts are de rigeur in terms of financial survival and debt relief, at least for now.

This evening was four home visits for a local visiting nurse agency which had woo'ed me for more than a year to take a full time position. I've refused their offers time and again---including a managerial position---but have taken on the mantle of "Evening Per Diem Nurse" simply to increase deposits to my checking account.

Interestingly, both of my per diem gigs reflect the nature of two previously held jobs during my early career as a nurse. My current work as a per diem visiting nurse harkens back to my previous employment at a locally-owned visiting nurse association which afforded me the opportunity to work somewhat autonomously, visiting 8 homebound patients per day, but bound and gagged by the specific orders signed by the supervising physician. I found that role stifling and clinically limited and lasted only a few years before being swept off my feet to the job which I now hold.

My second per diem position is within the community health center where my full-time care management program is housed as a contracting agency. I primarily chose to work per diem at the clinic so that I could gain access to various employee benefits at the hospital of which the clinic is a part, namely the employee gym where I work out several times per week for $20 per month. Aside from that, it gives me an insider's view of the health center and some measure of an edge when it comes to facilitating care for the 80 patients on my roster during my day job.

Wearing several different hats as a nurse can be confusing at times if one loses sight of what the particular scope of practice is for the position of the moment. While I may occasionally experience "role confusion" (ie: wanting to make an autonomous decision in my clinic role as Pod Nurse before realizing that this autonomy belongs to my full-time job), I'm relatively capable of maintaining my differentiation depending upon the role in which I am presently embodied.

Examining my three distinct clinical roles and their defined scopes of practice, I am immeasurably grateful for the breadth and depth of the autonomy which is the cornerstone of my full-time job, a reason why I remain in such a stressful and demanding professional position. Overseeing and managing the care of 80 people whose clinical disposition, comorbidities and occasionally chaotic lives can be an enormous challenge, but the freedom of practice which is the central aspect of my role more than makes up for the frustrations and vicissitudes of the job.

As much as it's difficult to work in two other positions which place me in a more, shall we say, "subservient" nursing role (ie: simply carrying out doctor's orders with relatively little room for personal initiative), spending time in those other "hats" gives me time to pause and reflect on the singular nature of what I do from 9 to 5, the authority and trust placed in me by my bosses and the doctors with whom I co-manage patients, and the ability which I regularly exercise of making clinical judgments and enacting plans of action vis-a-vis those judgments.

All this is to simply say that my "other jobs" can often serve to reinvigorate my 9 to 5 experience rather than just exhaust me due to the extra hours of labor after the 5 o'clock whistle blows. Would I rather not feel the need to work more than just my full-time job? Sure. But when push comes to shove, the Man Who Would be Nurse does what he must do, and then comes home to reap the rewards of a day's work well done.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Eavesdropping

You are a fly on the wall of an exam room today, and I'm facing a patient whose choices are not always the best, but she shows great promise.....

"I'm so worried about my liver, I've been thinking of killing myself."

"Well, your liver really isn't that bad."

"Are you sure? I'm so nervous. I took one of my mother's Ativans this morning. I just couldn't take it. I'm gonna die."

"We're all gonna die someday. I could die when I leave work tonight. You may outlive me by thirty years. But here we are right now."

"I don't wanna die. I'm shittin' myself."

"Look at the computer screen with me for a second. Do you see those lab values compared with two years ago? That indicates inflammation and damage to the liver. You were much worse off at that time. We're making progress."

"But I just did crack recently and was in detox for days! I keep telling myself that I don't really drink, but I have this whole box full of nip bottles. I just guzzled one after another."

"Look, everybody makes mistakes. The fact is, you went to detox, now you're clean. You've got a fresh start, a chance to begin again. Every day you're clean is a victory. Every hour you're clean is a victory. Don't look at the bigger picture---it's too overwhelming. You can say to yourself, 'Wow, I didn't use today. I didn't have any cravings. That's great! I went an hour without thinking about drugs. Wow!' "

"But I'm so worried. I went to the methadone clinic today, and somebody said, 'Hey, you look all stressed out. Want some Xanax? I've got some rock [cocaine] you could have.' Jesus, don't these people get it? I just got out of detox and they're offering me rock! Shit!"

"Part of recovery is changing the people you hang out with. Seeing those same old people every day just triggers you to use, or at least to crave it."

"But that's the thing----the methadone clinic is crawling with druggies. And the staff don't want me to get off of methadone---they don't want to lose clients. I need to get off of that stuff and away from those assholes."

"There is a place where you can be detoxed off of methadone safely, but you have to go every day for at least a month and really get with the program. There's counseling, nurses, a doctor to oversee your care, and they'll communicate closely with me. We also need to get you into therapy and to see a psychiatrist. If we don't deal with the depression and anxiety, we're missing a big piece."

"I wanna do it all! I'm ready. You've been so good to me, all I want to do is get it together. I don't wanna die, not any time soon. Do you think I have a chance?"

"You have all the chances you need right here in front of you. Let's go one step at a time. You look good, your labs aren't that bad, and you're ready to roll. Let's get you referred to those programs, and then for a liver biopsy so we know exactly what we're working with, OK?"

"All right. I'm ready. I'm gonna take good care of myself this weekend, go to meetings every day, and come see you Monday."

"Great plan. I really think you can do this, and we're here to help you make the right choices. Call me Monday."

"OK. It's a deal."

And with a handshake, she's gone, swallowed by the world, and the streets that tempt her at every turn. May every force for good in the universe be with her........

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Prima Facie

prima facie \PRY-muh-FAY-shee; -shuh\, adverb:
1. At first view; on the first appearance.

adjective:
1. True, valid, or adequate at first sight; as it seems at first sight; ostensible.
2. Self-evident; obvious.
3. (Law) Sufficient to establish a fact or a case unless disproved.


To many of us, the desire for healing, for health and wholeness is prima facie, or obvious, a self-evident goal and marker of life's quality. From our priviledged middle-class vantage point, we go to the dentist for prophylactic cleanings, make sure we see our doctor, read labels on the foods we buy, make informed decisions about our healthcare and diet, and see this as a responsibility and a wise decision.

As healthcare providers, we are often faced with individuals who don't seem to make the same choices, who appear to behave in ways which would lead some observers to decide that our patients don't really care about themselves and have blatant disregard for the tenuousess and preciousness of life. But this is never truly as it seems.

What does one say to the middle-aged man whose father lashed out in blind drunken rages and threatened to kill the child who next spoke a word? How do you help him to see past his own addiction, his predilection for the numbing qualities of cocaine and alcohol?

How do I impress upon the thirty-year-old with AIDS that this current regimen of antiretrovirals is his final chance, that if he blows this one by not taking his meds correctly and religiously, the virus will mutate in ways which will preclude any futher successful treatment, pending the invention of new drugs which he could tolerate?

What do I say to the woman whose history of trauma leads her to acts of desperation, to somatic complaints for which we have no remedy, to blind rages that no counseling can relieve?

When patients' state insurance cuts all dental care for four years, ceases to pay for eye glasses, and does not cover $50 pairs of compression stockings for peripheral vascular disease, how does one convince a patient that they are valued and should value themselves? Patients have said, "The government doesn't value my dental health, why should I?"

How does a citizenry feel valued when their taxes increase, their benefits shrink, and the government appears to consistently abandon its neediest members while pursuing questionable policies which only enrich the wealthy and well-connected?

So, prima facie, at first appearance, it is easy---too easy---to impose our own middle-class standards of self-care and conscientiousness on our patients. We see their plight through eyes which have never been denied glasses. We speak through mouths which have received the dental care which they needed. We leave for work, bellies filled with nutritious food which fuels our morning, an equally nutritious lunch packed in our bag or awaiting us at a local restaurant of our choosing. As tax-paying working citizens, we feel validated, our education and relative luxuries cushioning and softening our days and nights.

Sure, it's easy to be self-righteous, to preach the gospel of the priviledged. It's another to see the plight of the disadvantaged and forgotten, and see clearly with eyes stripped of their middle-class blinders. Can I always do it? Not a chance. I'm as guilty as the rest.

We must all be reminded time and again, and we healthcare providers must also remind ourselves that there is only so much we can say, so much begging we can do, so much pleading we can verbalize. There are those whose psychic spines seem to have been broken beyond repair. It's hard to not be discouraged, not to feel angry, to blame the patient, their families, the government, the world, "the system". Our perceived powerlessness can be maddening to the point of tears.

At first appearance, there is so much we just cannot fix. But in the end, we fix that which is fixable and we move on, letting compassion guide our steps and hearts, and allowing realism to remind us that we can only do so much, and even we must sometimes let go.

Prima facie.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Eskimolitos and The Economics of Poverty

The heat gripped the city tightly today. The children pranced in the sprinkler park, and the elders sat in the shade of the trees playing Bingo and dominos. The youth played basketball, oblivious to the heat and the dire warnings of poor air quality and smoggy humidity. I don't know how many times I warned people to be careful in the heat today, sounding like a broken sweaty record.

At my wife's senior center, popsicles from the Department of Elder Affairs made the rounds---the Puerto Ricans call them "Eskimolitos".

All of our patients receive checks from Social Security on the first of each month, making that a relatively quiet day for the medical providers. Unfortunately, today---the hottest day of the year---was "Check Day", and hundreds of our clients and patients rushed around the city to cash checks, pay bills, shop, and otherwise hurriedly rid themselves of the small amounts of money with which they subsist on a monthly basis. I spent some time today worrying about the many people in compromised health who, out of force of habit, spent the hottest part of the day on the simmering streets.

This line of thought led me to consider the economics of poverty and how our patients do---and don't---manage their funds. In previous posts, I've described the extortionate prices that our patients pay for leased household furnishings and the money that's squandered on such high interest rates and fees. Similarly, our clients generally do not have bank accounts, choosing simply to cash their checks at a check-cashing facility (which takes a cut, of course) and subsequently paying their bills from the same store (with additional fees paid for each money order written). Add to this the extraordinary amounts which people pay for premium cable television service, and it's no wonder that when push comes to shove, there's precious little money left for such things as prescription co-payments and extra fluids and popsicles for hot weather. It's enough to make a nurse steam with incomprehension.

So, there they all ran, the macadam soft under their shoes, their monthly stipend from the federal government dwindling at each stop. Some walk, some take the bus, some get rides from neighbors, friends, and family members. Their children hopefully learn to use banks, checks, debit cards, and on-line bill-paying, leaving the old-fashioned money orders and fees to the elders. Check Day is a monthly phenomenon, an orgy of consumption, a rush to fill the cabinets and stock the fridge, pay the rent, and flatten the bills. With poor planning, the final week of the month then becomes a time to scour the cabinets for that last can of beans, visit the free lunch program, or find a ride to the food pantry.

Today, the heat be damned, they criss-crossed the city in a mad dash of accomplishment and consumption (not to mention responsible bill-paying, a praiseworthy practice). One diabetic and asthmatic patient of mine arrived to the senior center sweaty and dizzy, with a blood sugar of 59 and a roaring headache, but it was nothing that a little Eskimolito couldn't cure.

And the temperatures will only rise tomorrow.